Bradford Smith ’84 spoke to attendees at the clinical celebration about how his time at a clinical student helped shape his career.
Practice for a Better Life
Columbia Law School’s Clinical Legal Education Provided “One of the Great Opportunities” for Microsoft President Bradford Smith ’84
As a student at Columbia Law School three decades ago, Bradford Smith ’84 spent one semester working in the Immigration Law Clinic, where he represented low-income clients facing deportation. In a speech at Columbia Law School delivered on Nov. 13, Smith said that experience proved invaluable—it shaped his life’s work.
“Law school is where you learn to think like a lawyer,” said Smith, now the president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, the multinational technology corporation based in Redmond, Washington. “But it’s clinical education that really teaches you to act like a lawyer.”
Smith was the keynote speaker at a daylong conference, “Origins and Innovations: A Celebration of Clinics at Columbia Law School,” marking 45 years of clinical legal education at the Law School. A pioneer in clinical education, Columbia Law School now provides free legal services at 10 student clinics covering a range of subject areas—from adolescent representation to environmental law to mass incarceration to sexuality and gender. At these clinics, students learn the law and lawyering in context, working with real clients under the close supervision of clinical professors.
Bradford Smith ’84 shakes hands with Professor Alexandra Carter ’03 after addressing attendees as the celebration's keynote speaker.
Smith’s remarks were introduced by Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law: “We all hold Brad up as the type of graduate that Columbia Law School seeks to train, aspires to create, and prepares to practice,” she said, describing Smith as “one of our most distinguished and high-achieving alumni.” Lester praised “the spirit of innovation” Smith brings to his current job, leading a team of 1,300 business and legal professionals in 55 countries, as well as his extensive involvement in pro bono services and other philanthropic work.
In addition to overseeing Microsoft’s corporate philanthropy and social responsibility initiatives, Smith chairs the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity and the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program, an appointment by the governor. He co-founded and co-chairs one of the nation’s largest pro bono efforts, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which represents unaccompanied children in U.S. immigration courts. Since its beginnings in 2007, KIND has trained more than 6,000 pro bono lawyers (and currently represents approximately 1,500 clients). In that time, the number of unaccompanied minors has exploded. “We last year saw 60,000 people come into the United States from Central America, seeking to stay here and needing a lawyer,” Smith said. His co-founder and co-chair at KIND is the United Nations high commissioner for refugees special envoy, actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie.
“It just goes to show that, when you pay attention in clinical education at Columbia, you never know who you might find yourself working with in the future,” Smith said.
With his wife, attorney Kathy Surace-Smith ’84 who is also an alumna of the Immigration Law Clinic, he has established the Smith Family Opportunity Scholarship, which assists students from lesser-developed countries at Columbia Law School.
(left to right) Professor Carol Liebman, Associate Professor Elora Mukherjee, Bradford Smith ’84, and Professor Alexandra Carter ’03.
When Smith related his story at the November 13 conference, he said it all began in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, then taught by Columbia Law School professors Harriet Rabb and Lucas Guttentag. More specifically, he explained, it started with his first client. That’s when he learned “to listen like a lawyer.”
“He was a young man, about the same age as myself, who was facing deportation,” recalled Smith. “We quickly realized, not surprisingly, that this case was a big deal to him. It was all about whether he was going to be able to continue to hold his job, live in this city, and stay in this country. For someone who didn’t yet have a law degree, and certainly didn’t yet have a license to practice law, these were pretty high stakes.
“If we were going to do our job well, we needed to listen to him; we needed to understand his issues; we needed to be able to work with him to mold the case that we would put forward. We needed to do our best to help him succeed. It brought home that, fundamentally, work as a lawyer is all about serving a client.”
At Microsoft, Smith oversees lawyers in the largest corporate immigration practice in the country. “We’re responsible for keeping in the United States 12,000 employees and their 15,000 dependents—their spouses, their children, in some cases their parents—so every day we’re responsible not for one person, but for 27,000 people.”
As America grows into an ever more diverse nation, Smith believes lawyers need to do more to “understand the needs of the individuals that we serve” and to “build the diversity of the profession in order to serve the diversity of the country.
“Right now, less than 9 percent of the nation’s lawyers are African-American or Latino, and yet we live in a country where more than 30 percent of our population is African-American or Latino,” he said. “The legal profession is less diverse than the nation’s doctors. It’s less diverse than the nation’s accountants. It’s less diverse than the nation’s engineers. It is less diverse than the nation’s business graduates. There is only one profession that is less diverse than law, and that is dentistry.
“We have a lot of people who are different from ourselves that we need to serve. One of the great things about clinical education is the same thing I see in pro bono work. If you are representing a real person in a clinic, by definition you are almost certainly serving a client who cannot afford a lawyer. And yet most lawyers, especially lawyers who have gone to Columbia Law School, can afford a lawyer if they need one. That means we are connecting with people who in some important respects are different from ourselves and we need to be good at understanding their needs and listening to them and working with them, something that I think we get started on in the context of clinical education.”
Smith praised young people today for their sense of justice. “They are passionate about social justice, and they are impatient about the rate of change. They know that we can do better as a country. And yet, interestingly, at the same time we all recognize that law school applications have declined. Why is it that, at a time when people are so passionate about justice, fewer people are applying to law school?
“I think there is a message that we have the opportunity to deliver to the college students and other young people of this country: If you care about justice, you should think about law school, because at the end of the day there can be no justice without law. There can be no lawyers doing something to move justice forward unless they come to law school.”
Smith addressed the students in the audience: “I hope you can take this message forward and encourage others to come here, get involved, take a clinic, take more than one. Use this to change the world. Just as I learned in the clinic that being a lawyer was all about serving a client, I think we need to always remember that, fundamentally, the role of lawyers is to serve the country.”